Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Brother’s Keeper

Julie Lee, Author

Holiday House, Jul. 21, 2020

Pages: 320

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: North Korea, Family life, Communism, Refugees, Freedom, Korean War


North Korea, 1950. Twelve-year-old Sora Pak and her family live under an iron set of rules: No travel without a permit. No criticism of the government. No absences from communist meetings. Repeat slogans. Don’t trust your neighbors. Don’t speak your mind. You are being watched.

There is no hope for escape…until war breaks out between North and South Korea. Suddenly there is chaos, and everyone is fleeing. The Paks’ plan to get to freedom is simple: they will walk hundreds of miles from their tiny mountain village to the South Korean city of Busan.

But when a bombing changes everything, Sora must get herself and her eight-year-old brother, Youngsoo, to South Korea alone — across rivers, over mountains, around enemy soldiers and border guards, and even through Pyongyang itself, all while staving off frostbite and starvation. Can two children survive three hundred miles of war zone winter?

Why I like this book:

Julie Lee’s Brother’s Keeper is a powerful work of historical fiction that will transport readers to the Korean War in 1950 — also known as the “Forgotten War” — where millions of people lost their lives trying to flee to South Korea. It is a haunting and compelling story of danger, suffering, survival, taking risks and heroism.  It is also a story about family and home.

The setting is vivid and rich in detail. Sora’s family lives in a square-shaped farmhouse with a thatched roof hugging the house like “a mushroom cap.” Their home is surrounded by fields or corn and millet.  All of the homes in her village look the same, but the countryside is lush and the rivers are the center of activity. The communist (under Kim II Sung ) rule with a tight fist and there are rules to follow and neighbors who spy on each other in return for favors.

Sora is a smart, curious and compassionate sister to two younger brothers. She loves school, learning and dreams of going to college and living in America. Sora has a complicated relationship with her mother, who like most Korean women value their sons over their daughters. Sora is angry when Omahni insists that she quit school to watch her baby brother, Jisoo. She also has to learn to cook and care for a household, which will prepare her for marriage. She’s more like her Abahji and shares similar dreams of travel. Youngsoo is a sweet boy who lifts Sora’s spirit with his humor. And he’s always going to catch her a fish. He’s also small and more vulnerable. Protecting him is what she does.

When a bombing separates Sora and Youngsoo from their family, it becomes Sora’s responsibility to keep them alive. Does she return home, or push forward hoping to find her parents? Courageous and resilient, Sora, chooses the treacherous journey south with only a small map of Korea folded in her pocket. Death and danger lurk around every corner. They find abandoned homes overflowing with sleeping refugees; sparse food; lice infestations; frozen rivers that break up while crossing; bombings; broken bridges; sinking canoes; mountains to climb; kidnappers; violence at the Imjin crossing; cardboard houses; and a frightening box car ride to Busan.

Lee’s novel is also based on the harrowing journey her mother made during the Korean War. The author feels that stories like this deserve a place in American history because there aren’t many books about this “Forgotten War” and the resilient Koreans who fled to South Korea.  Many American soldiers lost their lives trying to liberate the country from communism.  This book is a story for teens and adults.

Make sure you check out the backmatter. There is an Author’s Note; photographs of the author’s mother, siblings and parents; a Timeline of the Korean War with historical information; and a glossary of Korean terms.

Julie Lee graduated from Cornell University with a degree in history. After working in market research in Manhattan for more than ten years, she decided to pursue writing full-time. Currently, Julie lives in Georgia with her husband and three children. When she is not spending time with her family, she is working on her next book while pursuing her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Brother’s Keeper is her debut novel. You can visit Julie at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

About Patricia Tiltonhttps://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

23 thoughts on “Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

    • Yes, I thought of you when I reviewed this book. I think your daughter would enjoy reading this compelling story because she’ll get a peek into what it was like to live in North Korea. She’ll love the brave and determined protagonist.


  1. Putting this on my book list! Thank you for this wonderful review – I have been reading some books by Korean authors (mostly adult) and I agree, we have pretty much forgotten that war.


  2. This time period deserves a compelling story like Brother’s Keeper. The characters sound perfect to carry the plot. I’m going to find a copy for a boy I first met when he was 12 (now 30). He was adopted at birth and is always interested in the history of where he was born. Thanks for featuring on MMGM.


    • This is an engaging story and you both will enjoy it. But if the boy is now 30, he’d enjoy “Every Falling Star,” a NF story that reads like a novel! It is about the brainwashing and how a boy’s family falls out of favor with the regime, and is sent to exile. He ends up alone but eventually his way out of North Korea to South Korea. I nominated it several years ago for a Cybils and it won first place in YA NF.


  3. I haven’t read this one- but I have added it to my list. My students do a HF unit and this sounds like a good addition to it. I also don’t recall reading many books set during the Korean War. My nephews are from Korea and I think they might enjoy this as well. Thanks for sharing. 🙂


    • It is an excellent story. And there is little on the Korean War. If you nephews are teens and can read YA, check my message to Greg about another fantastic book I reviewed a few years ago — Every Falling Star.


  4. Oh, I have to read this! I recently read Nothing to Envy, which was a nonfiction book about several North Koreans who defected to South Korea. I really like that this is based on the author’s family. I can’t imagine how two children could survive such a long trek.


  5. Oh, my. This just went very near the top of my TBR list. You are right. There are very few books about the Korean War for kids, and it’s important for them to know about. This one sounds great. Thanks for telling me about it.


  6. This sounds like an incredibly powerful story! I don’t read too many books about war, but even I can tell that the Korean War seems underrepresented in stories (and in people’s memories in general). This book sounds very powerfully written, so I’ll keep it in mind! Thanks for the great post!


  7. I have always been fascinated by the Korean war, most likely as it was the first war in my lifetime. This book brings the human stories to light. Part of history that should not be forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

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